Friday 29 October 2010

Go with the flow

A tune breaches the blockade of sound that constantly surrounds the city.
A simple melody from a flute that is clear and pure, floats over the cacophony of horns, engines, bells and shouts. It casts a spell on me stilling the tempest in my head. It offers succour and soothes my soul. I walk out of its earshot and then realise I want more; I have to turn to bring it back into my life. Ryhad and I travel as pilgrims to its source and find it is a youth of maybe twenty with a sack of flutes and whistles on his back playing on a street corner. I am caught and helpless in his power the child to his Pied Piper.
The music he plays alludes to a place I haven't been but know I will visit, a greener quieter land where life flows at a gentler pace, away from the dust and noise of Dhaka.

I am again in my element -anonymous in an unknown city in a strange country with a newly made friend.
Rhiyad works for Impact Foundation in Bangladesh, pioneers of a floating hospital that visits the most remote areas and performs operations to correct clubfeet, cleft palettes and remove cataracts. Life changing procedures at affordable rates even for the poorest of the poor. The Jibon Tari (meaning the boat of life) is moored 150 miles away in Barisal on the banks of a river that makes up part of the vast delta of the Ganges as it flows into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh is 60 percent water and I will be travelling to Barisal by boat.
This is where I am transported to by the music played by the flute seller and I understand that I need to make a recording; it will work so well with my film.
I have only been in the country for five hours and two of those were spent in near stationary traffic coming from the airport. Dhaka like most of the SE Asian countries I have been to is absurdly congested, but whatever I must negotiate with this young man to take possession of his spell.
Sabaj (meaning green) is cool and confident and knows his worth. Though obviously financially impoverished he will never be destitute he has the special power to make people feel something, can change their state of mind. He is so obviously a musician, though unkempt his mismatched clothes look good on him, his hair is stylish but is not a haircut and he moves with the ease of someone who knows who they are and what they can do. As a musician I am proud of him.
We agree a price and go to fetch my camera from the hotel. We walk in an easy silence him perfectly content to have had his evening hi jacked then he starts playing a selection of tunes that herald our arrival as we moved through the city, children dance ahead. Then all three of us including my camera bag squeeze onto a cycle rickshaw and set of on a death-defying journey to the Impact Foundation office. More than once I feel the urge to get out and call the whole thing of it certainly isn't safe. It is sometimes hard in the moment to differentiate between exciting and foolhardy and even harder to stop what one has set in motion.
Sabaj is as relaxed in the 6th floor air conditioned office of Impact as he is on the street, unfazed, he is a musician aware of his power and can do what he does anywhere, it’s about what's in him not what's around him. He plays five tunes and by the time he finishes two security guards a cleaner,Rhyhad and I are sat at his feet completely enchanted.
Once paid he leaves me a flute and a whistle and goes leaving just the asthmatic wheeze of the door closing behind him.
One good thing about music...

Part of the fun of travelling alone is that you can indulge yourself completely in your impulses, be a complete free radical and throw your dice whenever you like Next morning finds me walking the baking dust dry streets of Dhaka making the most of my 24 hours there. I come across a market full of the most gorgeous looking vegetables all arranged beautifully like mandalas. So green, clean and moist but so open to defilement in the city’s atmosphere. I've no idea how large Dhaka is and I can't remember the name of the area where my hotel is (I've enjoyed getting stoned most my life but really don't enjoy the memory loss) But importantly I know how to get back.
Busy, frenetic, Brownian motion, thousands of souls each being driven by their own will and human need all with their own desires, fears and secrets. 4 million people living in the fastest growing city on earth with 400,000 rickshaws trying to get them around. Every square metre is used and there seemed to be as much demolition as construction it is like being in a human termite colony everyone doing something. At one point I stand on a bridge over a stinking green lake that can't possibly support life, on one side are new high rise apartments marble clad with tinted windows as good a money can buy any where in the world. Across the divide are stilted slum dwellings, wretched and shameful. The haves and the can't ever possibly haves. Such juxtaposition is beyond a joke. A family of geese float gracefully on the sludge. I find a likely looking restaurant and sit down to a coffee and rice pudding.
Sweet success.
A young Bangladesh man turns over his shoulder and asks where I'm from, it's a normal opener to a conversation and I tell him He asks if he can sit with me. No problem I say and he sits. We talk and he tells me he works in Eco tourism and he tells me he had an English boyfriend for a while. I ask him if that is a lover or a male companion." Oh no we had sex" he says blowing my tact out the water. We talk about being gay in Bangladesh society and how hard and dangerous it can be.Adnan works for a British guy who is trying to kickstart the tourist industry in Bangladesh he is ex marketing manager of Jaguar cars and Retired CEO Sony Europe. Sensing the opportunity to rustle up some work I agree to go and meet him.
On standing up Adnan's sexuality is clearer; so obviously gay. It is amazing how openly gay men have traits that transcend all cultural divides it is a if he is one of a tribe that is scattered throughout the world. Like musicians it is because they know who they are maybe? They know themselves and allow themselves to be how they are. A great liberation, the exorcism of male veils revealing the anima beneath. He really does mince across the road and the hand is limp and he throws his head dramatically back over his shoulder to check that I am following. I am behind him and dealing with the fact that everybody in the street that is looking at us is assuming I've picked him up and I'm doing my utmost to exude "straightness" and avoid being arrested for homosexuality
It occurs to me that anything could happen now, this could be some set up that I will have to extract myself from or at worst a gang rape in a warehouse down by the waterfront or... or it could be really interesting and I should trust my instincts (so do wildebeest sadly)
So I sit down next to Adnam on a rickshaw. By now he's turned into a full on queen and is flapping his hands round wildly and howling with delight at the near misses our rickshaw and gripping my arm in false seizures. I actually feel ok about the whole thing and enjoy this one-man camp carnival through town
I am also keeping myself aware of our route so I will be able to at least direct a rickshaw towards where we had come from. With a final whoop we arrive at a very grand apartment which is not too far from where we had recorded Sabaj the night before and we breeze by security as he informs me that this is the mayor's residence too. It is a fine looking place and I'm thinking there's either money behind this scam or all is cool.
Adnam knocks an apartment door gently and a servant let's us in to a hushed and cool interior
It turns out that Tim Steele is real and he makes me most welcome. We talk for about an hour an a half he has a fantasastic overview of the country. He could live anywhere in the world but is drawn here and is dedicated to turning the tourist industry into an income generator for rural people. He fills my head with facts and details and advice with what to do with the three days free that I have at the end of the week. I gave him the gentle sell offering to film some of the ancient temples, fantastic beaches and wild elephants he's talking about but he said he was very busy but would have a look at my website I put it down as a no sale in my head.
I notice it is 2:30 and I am being met at 3. I make my goodbyes and rush out to retrace my steps back to my hotel.
In between giving directions to a rickshaw driver I sit back and thank my luck and the way the world can sometimes run so smoothly, the ways things link up with each other if you have time to go with the flow. Give every opportunity the maximum advantage with no agenda but the desire for experience.
Don't be scared
I got up this morning and checked my mail, Tim Steele has contacted me saying he has looked at the website and would like to have dinner and talk about how we could work together.
Who knows something may come of it
It's always worth a try.
Go with flow and see where you go.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Human traffic jam

What does it take to make a man uproot himself and his family taking nothing with him but three mouths to feed?
Leave everything he is sure about, to find a new life in another city in a different country? To have no destination or bed to head to, no job and nowhere to keep the three bags he carries. Abject and completely at the mercy of whatever governs our luck and fortune, birth and future in this tilted world.
What can it feel like to sit with your family on the platform of a station waiting to take a train to an unknown future? Your two children still young enough to have faith in your decisions who expect you to provide and to know all answers, a wife that married you for security and a future and is now penniless, helpless and blind to the perils to be faced in a foreign and hungry city?

Marooned there on a busy platform at Gorakhpur junction the last stop before Nepal in Uttar Padesh Northern India this family is a vulnerable pathetic sight I initially apply my values and see the pair as brave- I could never have done that with my kids but I realise he is not being bold he is desperate. The family are migrants from Nepal, they are landless there and so forever bound to landlords and poverty, a feudal system that paralyses their lives. Without work they would starve, so a ticket to Delhi and the possibility of both parents working on construction sites is the only hope.
They are not alone; the platform is crowded with similar groups all sat gazing into space as if focusing on a point they will never reach.

Dressed in white jackets and moving amongst them like angels are two beautiful Nepalese women who hand out leaflets and counsel them on what to expect and who to contact if they get into trouble. They work for SEVA the organisation I have come to visit.
SEVA works to prevent human trafficking and are at every land border, bus and train station in this region looking to counsel migrants and identify young girls who may be victims of human trafficking. Nepalese girls are often quite striking and there is a demand for them in the sperm pits that are the red light districts of SE Asia. Young girls are lured there, sometimes by false marriages to young men who turn up in remote villages offering love, trinkets and a future. They are then abandoned in a brothel, abused and never able to return home through fear, shame and ignorance.
Human trafficking is a multi million dollar Mafia run business that knows many ways to get flesh on the plate of sex hungry inadequate man. SEVA along with the police and border guards are stopping hundreds of girls being sentenced to a life of sex slavery and it is a privilege to be filming their work.
I am with them for two days visiting the Borders following them on to buses and trains and visiting schools and homes they run for the most disadvantaged children in this the poorest state in It is not just Nepalese girls who find themselves part of the flesh trade in far off cities - the wretched caste system means that landless and un educated lower caste women are vulnerable so Seva educates and negotiates land ownership for many Dalit women
The landscape is flat and green, very wet with crops of paddy fields and sugar cane. An occasional Teak plantation offers shade and monkeys thrive there eating scratching and shagging on the roadside like the rest of us really but without a house. We drive for hours but we never pass through wilderness people and shelters are always present, lives being lived out and shrines attended to.

Gorakhpur is simply the dirtiest smelliest most chaotic place I have ever visited I am sure that all who live there have never been anywhere else or they would not return. When I arrive it has been raining and the whole city is awash with an evil black sludge. Shit, piss, decaying matter mixed with oil and drain water topped with a liberal dusting of litter.
A Crapuccino.
Of course we have all seen a bit of urban filth before but not a whole town. It's as if Glastonbury has been held in a sewage farm on a city dump.
Add to this people and cars and motor rickshaws and cows and dogs and bicycles an cycle rickshaws and donkeys and me... tiptoeing through and between it all, the only man in town saying sorry or excuse me please.
The town appears to gave spread unchecked and unplanned there is no style or theme in the buildings it's as if it is a storage depot for condemned buildings. Brick, wood, thatch, mud and concrete cohabit shamelessly separated by roads and paths that act as arteries for anything that moves. It has an element of the Klondike to it without the fortune to be made
Hindi is the second language in Gurakhpur the first is the car horn -there seems to be a vocabulary and at any junctions the noise is deafening and no one knows who's hooting who. To use the car horn in the UK is a last resort and an invitation to confrontation here it is as much part of the car as the steering wheel. There are no road laws traffic moves like marbles on cobbles wherever there is a gap fill it. Consequently the city is gridlocked even on foot I was frequently stuck in the middle of the road unable to move in any direction, the fumes, stench and cacophony combined to evoke an altered state I'd regain consciousness up the road wondering how I got there
PJ is a driver with SEVA and he was a constant source of outrage and admiration to me. He seemed pathologically opposed to anything being in front of him and spent the entire time I was with him overtaking things and would accelerate into an junction speaking fluent car horn and swerving to miss children and other annoying obstacles. He relied on the world moving around him and drove as if playing a computer game and that no one mattered but him getting through the metal an flesh blockade in front of him. Outrageous liberties but no one cared or took offence back home he would be followed to his house and beaten. . He liked to sing and wonderfully his voice was always in the same key as his car horn. He never hit a single object in the entire 350 kms we travelled together but incredibly whenever we hit a rare open stretch of road he drove really slowly.

Images unlike smells and sounds linger: a dog ducking underneath a stationary cow rubbing ears against udders causing the cow to shudder. Warm cow breath on the back of my hand. A spiders web the size of a blanket shrouds bare power lines above me. Shocking spiders
A laundry wallah washing his load of other peoples clothes in a putrid pool of fetid black water,
Shit brown bubbles.
A cow gently gnawing a poster off a wall its domino teeth exposed, lips that kiss the brick. . A rat running down a curtain in the reception of my hotel as I come down for breakfast. Inexplicable movement in the cornflakes I am about to help myself to, I explore to reveal a burrowing bug.
A look of surprise in a cows eyes as I feed it the last of my ice cream reminiscent of mothers milk with a hint of pistachio it had never experienced ice before -it followed me back to my hotel and was outside next morning

I film a man asleep on the platform the station, foetal and vulnerable with his hands between his thighs. For the moment he has escaped his life on earth is free from his mortal struggle, what does he dream of?
I wonder for these people who have nothing here in the conscious realm do they have more to dream about than those who have everything?

Its not that I don't like Gorakhpur I love the outrageous and everything has as much worth and the same rights as anywhere else its just so poignant that it's the first stop for so many who are dreaming and hoping for new life. But it just can't be any better than where they have come from and can offer little hope of a brighter future. Hundreds of souls all trying to escape their fortune or being duped into a life of exploitation. Thrown together and gridlocked in a Human traffic jam.